Short Story: Cinderella’s Smile
A humorous love story about active retirement
Available to listen to or download on www.podcasts.ie, July 2013
Published in Senior Times, April/May 2011
Awarded 1st Prize – Bealtaine Short Story SDCC Competition, 2010
The movement of a large, black, hairy spider caught Betty’s eye as she pulled a hairbrush through her auburn tinted hair. Looking at her watch she muttered under her breath as she made her way downstairs and into the kitchen. She returned to her bedroom with a glass in her hand, opened her window, grabbed a magazine from her locker then expertly placed the glass over the spider while manoeuvring it onto the magazine where she had laid it flat against the wall. Balancing all three she crossed to the open window and flicked the spider out onto the extended roof of her kitchen. He can make his own way back to the garden she thought, as she hurriedly locked the window and remembered to bring the glass down to the kitchen where she gave it an extra vigorous wash.
Moments later she locked the front porch and with her large handbag hoisted on her left shoulder she strode up the road.
“Yes Amy, but hopefully I won’t get loads of homework,” chuckled Betty as she smiled at Amy’s mother Joan waiting at the door to welcome her six year old home.
“I’ll knock in for you on Monday for the Ladies Club,” said Joan
“Great, I’m looking forward to it this week. They’ve a landscape gardener coming in to give us all a few tips. Sure I’ll see you then for a chat,” said Betty calling back over her shoulder.
Entering the front door of St Jude’s Secondary School she arrived, breathless, at the classroom door just as everyone was going in. She headed for her usual computer terminal beside her friend Mary, took out her notebook and pen and changed her glasses.
“Well, we have a new member joining us today,” announced Sarah, their tutor, from the top of the class.
Betty looked up and felt a slow heat rising to her face as she slid further into her chair.
“This is Paddy and he’s hoping to learn a little more about computers so that he can keep in touch with his kids in New York and eh . . .”
“And Cavan,” smiled Paddy with a twinkle in his eyes.
As the laughter subsided Sarah pointed out the members of the Active Retirement Computer Group; John, Eoin, Jim, Angela, Mary and finally Betty.
“Paddy, I’ll put you sitting beside Betty today, Tom is at his daughters wedding so he won’t be here and Betty can give you a hand if you’re stuck – sure she’s nearly in the advanced class. We’ll have you up on Skye and Facebook before you know it!” she said as she pulled the chair out for him.
“Hi,” mumbled Betty barely looking up. Paddy sat down and turned toward her, then did a double-take.
“Not Betty the best ballroom dancer in Dublin – also known as Cinderella” he laughed.
Betty looked up as Paddy settled his long legs beneath the desk. He was even more handsome than she’d remembered with his snow white hair cut short and combed neatly to the side. But it was still those piercing blue eyes, so clear and bright, that made her heart miss a beat. At my age, I can’t afford to miss a beat, it’s only the medication I’m on that’s keeping it beating at all.
“I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable, if I am I’ll leave after today, you were here first and I wouldn’t like to . . .”
“No, it’s absolutely fine” she cut across him as she inhaled the fresh scent of Old Spice emanating from him.
“Okay class, let’s continue on from last week where we were attaching photos to your email,” said Sarah while Betty, who normally listened intently while jotting notes for later, thought back to the last time she’d seen Paddy.
It must have been close to two years ago, she thought, when her friend Mary had begged her to go to The Ierne Ballroom for the Valentine’s Day Dance. Betty, a widow for over twelve years by then, was used to being on her own but Mary was still coming to terms with it all and needed to get out and about. Reluctantly Betty agreed to go. Much as she loved the ballroom dancing she attended each Friday afternoon with some of her friends, she didn’t feel the same about going into dances in town where she didn’t really know anyone.
It was on that night that Paddy, who she’d noticed watching her earlier in the night, had asked her to dance. He reminded her of her husband Tommy the way he swirled her around the dance floor, her feet barely touched the ground all night. He told her that he was a retired Painter and Decorator – just like her Tommy had been – and he too was widowed, but only the year before when Lily’s weak heart had finally given in. They had spent most of the night dancing and laughing, enjoying each others company, but then fate had intervened.
Betty had taken a break and was sitting chatting with Mary. The night had been a great one – neither of them having laughed so much in ages. Mary recounted her adventure here last time when a guy called Jack had taken her up for every waltz, only to stand on her toes so often that she’d had to bathe her feet for a week to get rid of the blisters. Taking a sip of her vodka and red Betty, with tears of laughter streaming down her face had started to cough, Mary had patted her on the back and when she’d looked up Mary had started to choke with laughter – Betty’s beautiful white teeth were gone! Realising what had happened Betty hurriedly buried her head beneath the table in search of them. Finding the bottom set of dentures she pushed them into her mouth – who cares what’s on the floor, this is an emergency – but she couldn’t find the top set. In between bursts of laughter they’d searched everywhere to no avail.
“We have to go. NOW!” mumbled Betty, grabbing Mary’s arm as they grabbed their coats and bags. They headed out the door and down the steps just as the lights came on behind them.
Hailing a taxi they slumped in laughter into the back seat, tears streaming down their faces.
“Just gone midnight and we’re already on our way home,” said Mary.
“I couldn’t stay there, if anyone saw me I’d die,” mumbled Betty as Mary looked at her friend and tried to stop the laughter erupting again. “I knew I shouldn’t have worn those new teeth out until I was used to them.”
As the taxi turned onto their road and they both rummaged in their bags for their keys and purses Mary could hold the laughter no longer as she pulled out Betty’s top teeth where they’d landed in the open compartment of her bag! They’d paid the taxi driver and spent another hour in Betty’s kitchen with a cup of tea while they replayed their evening.
“Well they always say laughter is the best tonic,” said Mary touching her teacup to Betty’s, “better than a gin and tonic any day.”
Betty was drawn back to the present as Paddy stood up and bent across her desk.
“Let me get that for you, Lily used to hate spiders, not that they do any harm, mind you.”
Cupping the spider in his large hands he walked across the classroom and dropped the spider out through the open window. Sitting down again he swivelled his chair around towards Betty.
“You know, I went back to The Ierne a couple of times after that night hoping I might see you. I really enjoyed the dancing and the laugh, you miss that most I suppose,” he said wistfully. “Lily wasn’t much of a dancer but we’d go to meet up with everyone.”
“Well you can always come to the ballroom dancing on a Friday in the school hall. Jim and Angela and Mary all go too,” she smiled.
“You know Betty, I just might do that, anything to see that beautiful smile of yours again,” he grinned.
“Ah, that’d be the Colgate,” whispered Mary while Betty felt a gurgle of laughter, like the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, begin to erupt!
Awarded 3rd Prize – Sport and Cultural Council (City of Dublin VEC) Poetry Competition, 2010
Jostled from slumber,
Eyes look deep into shadows
Of an unfamiliar hotel room.
From the darkness,
Fear slowly manifests;
Shallow breath, hammering heart,
crescendo deafened ears.
Intently I strain to hear,
Cocooned beneath the duvet,
Foetal position, eyes open wide,
Until I sense fingers caress my cheek.
The darkness stirs,
A shimmering entity emerges,
Just outside my line of vision.
Intruder, ghost, spirit?
Evil or benign or . . .
I scream in terror.
Flash Fiction: Iron Lady
Memories raced back through Dolly’s mind, of her first husband, Jack.
She squeezed the handle hard, and as steam hissed out in front of her, she could see his face. His china blue eyes and quick smile. His fair hair, always perfectly coiffed, brushed back in a quiff with Brylcream. He had been a good‐looking man, in his day.
Running the iron back‐and‐forth, across the snow white fabric, she wondered what the owner of this shirt looked like. She inhaled the faint scent of Old Spice still ensconced in the size 18 collar. Obviously a tall man. Big build. Maybe along the lines of Gregory Peck? She hummed the music from Spellbound, seeing herself as Ingrid Bergman, as she deftly manoeuvred the iron in between the buttons.
Twenty minutes later, as she hung the last of the twelve shirts onto a hanger and covered them with plastic, she heard the bell above the front door jangle.
“Dolly, have you got the ironing for Margaret Harris finished yet?” shouted Paul from the counter.
“Just finished this minute, but it wasn’t due to be collected until Tuesday,” said Dolly. As she walked out to the counter with the crisp, white cotton; she glanced in the mirror. Her curly, auburn hair nestled around her neck, sticking out slightly on the right. Probably from all the steam, she thought, pushing it behind her ear. She pressed her lips together, enlivening the pale pink lipstick she had glided on earlier in the morning.
“Oh, sorry about that,” smiled the tall man at the counter. “My housekeeper, Margaret, normally does my ironing, but she slipped. Broke her arm. I just dropped them in this morning on my way for a round of golf and thought I’d check to see if there was any chance they were ready on my way back. Well, my luck is in,” he smiled at Dolly.
He had a nice smile, she thought. Well dressed too, in a black polo shirt and black trousers. His face was lightly sun‐tanned and his cheeks ruddy. His mop of grey hair stuck up in tufts, but it was his blue eyes, housed beneath long dark lashes, that drew her attention.
“Well, it wasn’t too busy today,” smiled Dolly, passing the shirts across the counter. Their fingers brushed and she felt a tingle of pleasure run up her arm.
“How much do I owe you?”
“That’ll be €12, please,” said Paul, ringing it up on the register.
“No doubt I’ll be in again, at least until Margaret recovers. She’ll be mighty impressed with the creases in these,” he laughed, holding up the shirts. He handed Paul a €20 note.
“Well, we aim to please Fr!” said Paul, counting back the €8 change.
Dolly sauntered back to her ironing board.
She was wrong, she thought, not Gregory Peck, maybe more like her third husband, John. Starting on a new bag of ironing, she began to hum the theme tune to True Grit.
Short Story: Redemption
A dark story about crime and punishment
My eyes shoot open and I sit upright in my bunk. The first thing I feel is the fear, as it bubbles up inside me, leaving acid burning at the back of my throat.
I look around the green walls of my room. A soothing colour, they say. Whoever, they are, they know nothing!
Today is Friday, 1 March.
I run cold water into the stainless steel sink and set up my utensils. Just like old times! I even manage a fleeting smile before rinsing my shaving brush in the water and shaking out the residue. I rub it round and round the creamy, white soap, three times clock-wise, then three times anti-clockwise before I paint my face. Bending closer, I can barely make out the brown eyes peering back. I inhale the heady, fresh scent and my mind flutters backwards in time.
With a huge effort I stop myself. Snatching up the worn, brown plastic comb I pull it savagely through my thin grey hair. I tug hard, bringing tears to my eyes, trying to flatten the hair over the bald patch which has emerged in recent years. I massage a dollop of Brylcream through my fingers and press down hard, sculpting the strands into place.
I miss the feel of my stainless steel razor the close shave. After rinsing away the suds with ice-cold water I rub dry. I run my battery razor up and down my face, hoping to stem the grey stubble. I crane forward again and like what I see, not as clean-shaven as with my razor, but needs must.
When the warden turns the keys in the grey, metal door and pushes it open, I am sitting, waiting patiently.
“It’s time Warren, are you ready?”
I nod my head, staring at my shiny shoes.
The other warden, the young one with the smirk, grabs me by the arm and pushes me ahead. My heart flutters. I take a deep breath; in through my mouth as I count to four, holding it deep inside me, for the count of seven, then I exhale slowly, for the count of eight. I repeat three times as we walk along the corridor to that room.
I wonder who will be there this time. Will it be the same as before or . . .
I’m shoved through the door. My breath becomes shallow. My heart quickens. My mouth is dry and I have trouble swallowing, I feel as if a golf ball is lodged at the back of my throat, cutting off my air supply.
“Sit down Warren,” says a female voice.
I look up to see a slight woman, bird-like in her features, with a halo of grey hair and blue darting eyes. I remember her. I’ve seen her face in my dreams often enough.
“You know we only want to talk to you.” She waves her arm to the right and introduces Mr Spence and Mr Shaw on the other side. “We’ve met many times Warren, I’m Ms Jackson,” she forces a smile which never reaches her beady, blue eyes.
I nod indifferently, knowing that every word I say will make a difference. My words, my tone, my actions – everything will be watched and analysed and debated. My head is pounding. I want to put my hands over my ears and bury my head between my legs and rock until it all stops. But I can’t do that! I take a deep breath; in through my mouth as I count to four, holding it deep inside me, for the count of seven, then I exhale slowly, for the count of eight. I’m about to repeat it for the second time, but I sense the six eyes across the table waiting expectantly for my answer – but I haven’t heard the question!
I cough into my hand then sit up straight, push my back into the chair and look them in the eyes.
“Sorry, just a little cough I’ve picked up,” I say clearly. “Would you mind repeating the question?”
The tension leaves the air.
“I just asked if you needed a glass of water before we begin?” said Ms Jackson.
“Very kind of you,” I say, as I take the half-filled plastic cup from across the table, ensuring that it looks accidental as my fingers brush her hand, like a moth to the flame.
Mr Spence clears his throat, pulling at his shirt collar where an expensive tie encases his scrawny neck. “Warren Davis, we are gathered here today to see if the time you have been incarcerated here at the Tennessee Department of Correction has helped you to see the error of your ways. We wish to see if you can be released into the population to benefit society. This is your chance to prove to us that you are no longer a threat . . .”
I tune out; I’ve already heard this speech so many times before. In my mind, I replace it with my speech. I’ve practiced it so many times in my cell, pacing up and down, making sure I am pitch perfect – as if my life depends on it. It does. I stifle a laugh. Do they honestly think I’m going to say or do anything to keep me here any longer? I can feel my lips moving and clamp them shut. I’ve learned my lesson on that one. I tune back in to the droning voice, looking Mr Spence directly in the eyes while he talks. He’s one of those guys that just loves the sound of his own voice.
At last, my time comes to speak.
Taking a deep breath, I sit up straight and begin.
“I have most certainly learned my lesson.” I pause, looking at the ground, conciliatory. “I was a young man, when I made my mistakes, not mature enough to realise the impact it would have on those around me. I was suffering,” again I pause, this time making eye contact with Ms Jackson, “suffering more than anyone could know. As you are aware, I was born in this prison and spent my first six months here with my mother – until she was stabbed by another prisoner and died days later. With no family, so-to-speak, a litany of foster homes followed – where love was withheld from me, I never learned how to behave in society. But I have learned. I have found God and he has saved me! Then, I thought I could take whatever I wanted, pluck it – like Adam taking the apple. I know now that is wrong.” I allow my eyes to rest on each of them. “But God has forgiven me and I have forgiven me! That was twenty-eight years ago. I am no longer that Warren.”
The silence in the room is palpable. My best speech yet! I feel like punching the air with my fist but I do not. I sit upright and stare straight ahead.
Ms Jackson nods her head to the warden at the door and I brace myself, holding my breath.
She walks into the room, her head held high. So like her sister. I can see a tremor in her neck, the vein bulging, pulsing beneath the collar of her thin, white blouse. Her black suit jacket and trousers sit well on her thin frame. Her black high heeled shoes are as shiny and well-cared for as mine. If only she let her blonde hair grow a little longer, so that it could drape her shoulders. My mind swirls backwards and I can smell green apples as my fingers caress the silken tresses.
“Ms Dean, we know how hard this is for you, please take a seat and read your statement,” says Mr Shaw.
Beth Dean nods and sits down in the empty chair across the room. Exactly as I remember her every day of the trial. She takes a folded page from her large, leather hand-bag. She cannot prevent the slight tremor of her hand as she bends her head and begins to read:
“Warren Davis is a cold-blooded killer who should never be allowed to leave the Tennessee Department of Correction. The rape, torture and death of my twin sister Rachel changed the lives of everyone who loved her. The grief and stress ended our parents’ lives and because of you,” she pauses, looking up, straight into my eyes, with such hatred, that I feel I’ve met a kindred spirit.
The voices in my head get louder. I clench my fists; hold them by my side, scraping the knuckles of my right hand against the hard plastic chair.
I can feel myself rocking back and forth. Stop, I scream inside, just hold it together for a few more minutes. So close. I bite the inside of my cheek, tasting blood.
“Rachel,” I moan.
I close my eyes.
I know it’s over.
Awarded 1st Prize – SDCC European Week Against Racism Poetry Competition, 2012.
Oblivious, I shop in this busy city.
Warmly lit windows show their wares;
amidst the hustle and bustle of busy lives.
I watch you sit on ice cold concrete.
A young man, scrunched forward,
a woollen hat low on your head,
your shivering palm held upwards.
My heart reaches out to you.
Thin jumper pulled over knees.
Skinny, bare legs folded tight;
long feet flat on the ground.
Sockless, shoeless, homeless.
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Flash Fiction: Let It Snow!
Johnny looked out the window and whooped. It was snowing!
He dug under the stairs and pulled out an old pair of wellies, shoved his feet inside, zipped up his jacket and grabbed a pair of gloves.
‘I’m just going out, Mum,’ he called, the front door already open.
‘Wait! Stir before you go,’ she called.
‘It’s now or never, Johnny-boy,’ she laughed, standing in the doorway.
He looked out at the driveway. No footsteps yet in the perfect blanket of snow. But not for long. He could see friends trundling up the road, firing snowballs.
He closed the door and followed her into the aromatic kitchen.
‘Quick Mum, where’s the spoon?’
‘Gloves off first,’ she said, as she pointed to the bowl.
He pushed the spoon into the dark mixture of currants, cherries, brown sugar and Christmas spices.
‘It has to be clock-wise, Johnny,’ smiled his mum. She had flour on her right cheek and her blue eyes were shining. ‘Three times, then make your wish.’
Johnny nodded, his face solemn, as he performed the yearly Christmas pudding ritual.
‘Okay. Done,’ he said. ‘Did you make a wish?’
‘Of course, you don’t think wishes are just for kids, do you? Now go, enjoy the snow,’ she shook the wooden spoon at him, her eyes brimming with unshed tears, ‘but make sure you’re back in time for dinner.’
Shoving a handful of cherries into his mouth, he hugged her tight, ‘Dad always loved this part of Christmas.’
‘He did,’ she ruffled his hair, ‘so go, have fun. Make him proud.’ She turned back to the bowl.
Johnny licked his sticky fingers before pulling his gloves on and heading outside.
Thirty minutes later, the snow had turned into a blizzard. His hands were freezing, his ears were ringing and he was cold.
A tall man dressed in black, a striped scarf covering half his face, walked slowly towards him. He cradled a brown box in his arms.
A flurry of snowballs pelted him, causing him to lose his balance. His eyes held a look of panic as he struggled to hold onto the box. Instinctively, Johnny knew that the contents were important. He rushed forward.
‘I’ve got it!’ he shouted. The man released his grip as he slipped to the ground.
‘Thanks, son,’ he muttered, as his scarf fell down to show a pale face scrunched in pain.
The box was light, but when something moved inside, Johnny nearly dropped it with fright. He noticed small air holes at the top. ‘It’s not a snake, is it?’ he whispered.
The man shook his head.
‘Johnny, didn’t you hear me call?’
Johnny turned to see his mum standing at the gate.
The man stood.
‘He’s a good lad. Just came to my aid.’ He took the box and opened it, gently lifting out a tiny black kitten with four white socks. ‘At the animal shelter, they named her Lucky,’ he smiled, holding her towards Johnny’s outstretched arms. ‘I guess she is.’